Metro fares are complex. There’s good reason for this, but it makes navigating the rail system tough for tourists. To make things simple, WMATA might consider a simple, flat fare on paper farecards for trips in a certain zone where tourists typically travel.


Hypothetical “tourist zone.” All trips inside the zone could cost $3 with a paper farecard.



As WMATA staff explained in their presentation on fare proposals, there’s a tradeoff between simplicity and fairness in all fare proposals, and generally the region has chosen fairness in the past.

Metro could have a single, flat fare, but it would have to be about $2.70 per trip. This would mean that everyone who rides very long distances every day would save a bundle, while all the commuters who live just a couple stops from work and ride off-peak could see their commute costs double.

A zone system is similarly a problem, since people riding one station across a zone boundary would end up paying as much as someone crossing almost 2 whole zones. We can reduce the unfairness by creating more zones, but then the fares get more complicated. Fewer zones are simpler, but much less fair.

That’s bad for regular Metro riders, but what about doing something similar for tourists? While the regular commuter probably has a SmarTrip which handles computing fares, it’s a lot of work for the tourist trying to buy a paper farecard for the first time.

Since tourists are already paying for hotels, meals and more, an extra dollar or two on the fare might be less important than making the system easy to understand.

We can’t make every paper farecard fare $2.70, since then everyone with a $5 commute would just buy these tourist fares instead. We could sell a single farecard for $5.20 (the current maximum Metrorail fare including peak-of-the-peak), but it’s a little much to charge each tourist that much per trip even if they’re taking the train from Smithsonian to McPherson Square.

But few tourists ride to Franconia-Springfield, anyway. What about a single tourist farecard which goes all the places tourists typically go? Metro could make it really easy to buy, with big, simple signs listing the cost, and a straightforward process on the fare machines. This “tourist fare” would take a rider anywhere in a certain zone, which Metro could prominently show on the maps.

At the last Riders’ Advisory Council meeting, Michael Eichler briefed the RAC on a number of fare proposals WMATA’s planning and budget offices are evaluating. Assistant General Manager Nat Bottigheimer showed the WMATA Board the same information in October. One of the ideas listed on the presentation is a flat fare for paper farecards. I suggested this “tourist zone” as a tweak to that idea.

Here’s one possible zone. A lot of tourists go to the airport, and a lot to Woodley Park (a major destination for convention-goers and animal-seekers). The fare between these 2 spots maxes out at $2.90 (peak of the peak) with SmarTrip, or $3.15 with a paper farecard.


Hypothetical “tourist zone.”


Any trip inside this zone costs no more than $3 (with SmarTrip), anytime. Metro could sell a “tourist card” for $3 a ride and make things a lot easier for the very high proportion of tourists who never leave this zone.

There’s no incentive for SmarTrip users to buy one of these instead, since no trip costs more with SmarTrip. A few of the longer trips currently cost more with paper farecards, but that extra cost is basically the “tourist tax” today. If Metro replaced that with this system, they’d probably make more money off the tourists riding short distances and make it worthwhile to keep the “tourist fare” at a flat and easy $3 instead of a more cumbersome $3.25.

Or, perhaps there could be more zones, or different zones. For example, the zone would also work a little farther east, encompassing Potomac Ave and Stadium-Armory and not Court House and Clarendon. If we had data on how many fares are paid with paper farecards versus SmarTrip at each station, it’d be easy to determine which is a more appropriate “tourist zone.”

As the planning department evaluates many different fare proposals (including some we’ve brought here on Greater Greater Washington just to recommend against), perhaps Eichler and the team can consider something like this. Can you come up with a better “tourist zone” system for them to evaluate?

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.